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Giving the Gift of Context by Asking the Right Questions

By Bruce Tulgan

Managers often tell us that their new, young employees suffer from a fundamental lack of context. This is partly a life stage issue: younger people have less life experience than older people and thus fewer points of reference to compare circumstances, people, and relationships. Context is all about these points of reference. So, lack of context comes with the territory when it comes to young employees.

Millennials’ lack of context, however, seems to stem from more than just youth and inexperience. Contrary to popular belief they do, in fact, appreciate and respect age and experience. But their appreciation and respect doesn’t translate into deference or acquiescence. Throughout childhood, their relationships with adults have rarely been defined in terms of absolute authority, and have instead often been inflected by familiarity.

Giving new, young employees the gift of context means explaining that, no matter who that individual may be, what they want to achieve, or how they want to behave, their role in any situation is determined in large part by factors that have nothing to do with them. There are preexisting, independent factors that would be present even if they were not, and those factors determine the context of any situation.

Context is easier to understand when we consider extreme examples of it: jail, war, famine, natural disasters. In any of these contexts, the possibilities are limited, and so is the scope of an individual’s potential role. In these contexts, certain expectations, hopes, expressions, and actions are inappropriate. While it is relatively easy to be sensitive to extreme contexts, it is often difficult for people, new employees in particular, to be sensitive to more subtle contexts, particularly when they walk into new situations. Every situation has a context that limits possibilities and limits the scope of an individual’s potential role.

The big mistake leaders and managers often make is allowing new, young employees to remain in their vacuum. Telling new employees “all about the company,” while important and useful, is not entirely the same thing as giving them context. Telling young employees: “This is how it was for me when I was a new employee” is also not giving them context. Understanding context is about understanding where one fits in the larger picture.

In our career seminars, we teach young employees to use a simple brainstorming tool in order to situate themselves in a new context, and you can use it to teach your new employees. We tell them that before they can figure out where they fit in an organization, they need to get a handle on the other pieces of the puzzle.

Ask your new, young employees to think and respond to the following questions:

  • Where am I? What is this place?
  • What is going on here? What is the mission of the group?
  • Why is everybody here? What is at stake for the group and for each person in the group?
  • When did they all get here?
  • Who are all these people? What role does each person play?
  • How are they accustomed to doing things around here? What is the standard operating procedure?
  • Why am I here?
  • What is at stake for me?
  • When did I get here?
  • What is my appropriate role in relation to the other people in the group?
  • What is my appropriate role in relation to the mission? Who am I in this context?

Take the time to discuss these questions with your new employees, as well as their answers to these questions. It will help both of you to understand where the other is coming from, and how each of you can adjust expectations your understandings to most effectively work together.

The Basics of Providing Context –  Part One

Defining ‘Good Citizenship’ in the Workplace – Part Three

Coaching Performance – Part Four


About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), , and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website

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